As one of only 20 in the country to take part in a Department of Homeland Security competition, a team of University of New Haven students is creating an initiative to promote education and foster confidence in an effort to reduce the number of school shootings.
December 23, 2021
When Laney Phillips ’22 was 13 years old, she realized she wanted to make a difference in the lives of others, she says, from a “strategic perspective,” and her interest in national security developed. She is now part of a team of University of New Haven students working on an important initiative that endeavors to do just that. Their goal is to keep others safe and enhance security in a critical setting: schools.
Phillips and her classmates have launched T.E.A.C.H. – Transform, Evaluate, Acknowledge, Captivate, Heal – to help combat targeted violence and extremism in schools. They are particularly focused on preventing school shootings, and they hope to do this, in part, by helping educators recognize the signs that a student is in need of crisis support. Their slogan is “Educate to Alleviate,” and their topic is one that is especially meaningful to Phillips and her teammates.
“I believe we have a very interesting perspective on gun violence in schools, since we were in high school when school shootings were happening frequently,” said Phillips, a national security major with a philosophy minor. “Personally, I experienced situations where my school was the focus of planned attacks. I also watched my teachers struggle with fear, and it was very difficult to see them want to help protect us but be unsure of what that would mean. I’m hoping our training will help teachers feel more confident.”
T.E.A.C.H. is a project that Phillips and her teammates have collaborated on during the Fall semester as part of a nationwide Department of Homeland Security (DHS) competition. They are among teams from only 20 schools in the country to take part in the competition, and the top three will be invited to the DHS headquarters in Washington, D.C., in the spring to present their work to DHS leaders.
“It has been very meaningful to be a part of one of those teams taking part in the competition,” said Anna Schleck ’23, a national security major with a concentration in intelligence analysis. “We are going up against some of the best schools in the nation, and I feel like we have been able to remain right alongside them with our ideas. I feel honored to be working with such bright people to try and make a small difference in addressing such a large and complex issue.”
‘A firsthand look at how practitioners develop policy’
The team, which includes undergraduate and graduate students, endeavors to develop an experiential learning program for educators to help them identify gaps in their existing training procedures while empowering staff at high schools to intervene to prevent a crisis. They created a pre-assessment, training modules, and a post-assessment for educators, which they offer on their website. They have also created an Instagram account to keep their peers up-to-date on school gun violence.
Jeffrey Treistman, Ph.D., an assistant professor of national security, has served as the students’ adviser. He says the entire project has been a student-led initiative.
“During our initial meeting I conveyed to the students my desire that they take the lead on the project, and that I would simply serve as an observer and provide assistance whenever needed,” he explains. “Much to my delight, they quickly took control of the project with enthusiasm and vigor.
“The project embodies the University’s mission of experiential education,” he continued. “The students got a firsthand look at how practitioners develop policy, including the challenges and frustrations that often go along with it. I’m proud of their accomplishment and confident the experience was intellectually rewarding.”
‘A fantastic experience to have as I begin my career’
Tahlia Ramos ’22, who accepted her bachelor’s degree in national security during the University’s Winter Commencement, says the project has broadened her approach to problem-solving.
“I have learned that projects like this – and social change in general – cannot happen overnight,” she said. “These initiatives take a lot of work from a very dedicated group of individuals. I have learned to think in a more complex way about problems.”
For Sarah Bigalbal ’21, ’23 M.S., a national security graduate student, the project has been a great way to apply what she has learned in her classes in a way that could directly impact people’s lives. As the team’s budget manager, she has developed skills that go beyond the field of national security, she says.
“It helped me improve my skills working with a real budget to help bring our project to life,” she said. “Working on this project has also improved my research skills, and I have also learned a lot about various programs such as LearnDash, where you can build an interactive online course. Working on something that could have a real-life impact will be a fantastic experience to have as I begin my career in the future.”
‘Help teachers feel more confident’
Maria Ruehl ’22, a national security major with minors in Arabic and criminal justice, says she too, has gained important skills while working on this project, such as time management and communication.
“This project has provided us with the opportunity to better understand the challenges those in the field of national security face, such as researching and becoming well-versed in an important issue in a short amount of time,” she said. “I hope our work on this project can impact our community in the West Haven and New Haven areas by allowing teachers to access more information and resources to ultimately keep themselves, their fellow faculty, and their students safer and more aware of violent threats.”
Phillips, the national security major and philosophy minor, hopes to further her education in the field of intelligence, and eventually, earn a doctorate. For now, she’s gaining important experience through her work on T.E.A.C.H., and she hopes it makes a meaningful difference in the lives of educators and students.
“Our goal is for our project to primarily help teachers feel more confident about the topic of school shootings,” she said. “Our project can be adapted for all teachers and professors, and this training can also be the foundation for educational modules for students. As a team, we saw anxiety and uncertainty from both students and teachers on this topic. We decided it would be important to have a project that offered resources and additional education.”